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Oculus has some pretty amazing technological breakthroughs that are tricking their way into consumer virtual reality headsets. One of their newest technological approaches is a Focal Surface Display that accurately makes elements of the what users see blurry and other parts sharp and in focus mimicking focal depth.

Why would you want part of your screen to be blurry?

Human vision works this way. When humans focus on objects in the foreground or background, elements of world come into focus while others become blurry. Oculus’ new approach aims to mirror this perceptual phenomena to provide a more natural experience that mimics human depth perception.

Oculus' believes that their new tech called the Focal Surface Display is “ground breaking.” A spokesperson for Oculus said, "Focal Surface Displays mimic the way our eyes naturally focus on objects of varying depths. Rather than trying to add more and more focus areas to get the same degree of depth, this new approach changes the way light enters the display using spatial light modulators (SLMs) to bend the headset’s focus around 3D objects—increasing depth and maximizing the amount of space represented simultaneously. All of this adds up to improved image sharpness and a more natural viewing experience in VR."

This means quite a few different things. First of all, Oculus’ new approach uses a mechanism called a spatial light modulator (SLM) which bends light. In this case the SLM bends the 2d images produced by the computer keeping elements in focus and distorting or blurry others. The spatial light modulator appears to be the meat of Oculus’ new approach. Spatial light modulators have been around for awhile. Overhead projectors are a simple form of this device.

Adding spatial light modulators (SLM) to the Oculus’ will be tricky and require some engineering tricks. Beyond shrinking such devices to fit into a headset, the software that controls the SLM must be programmed in a very specific and complex manner. Additionally, all of this required surpassing significant hurdles of optic distortion. Describing their approach Oculus says,

"Focal surface displays continue down the path set by varifocal and multifocal concepts, further customizing virtual images to scene content. We have demonstrated that emerging phase-modulation SLMs are well-prepared to realize this concept, having benefited from decades of research into closely-related adaptive imaging applications. We have demonstrated high-resolution focal stack reproductions with a proof-of-concept prototype, as well as presented a complete optimization framework addressing the joint focal surface and color image decomposition problems. By unifying concepts in goal-based caustics, retinal scanning displays, and other accommodation-supporting HMDs, we hope to inspire other researchers to leverage emerging display technologies that may address vergence-accommodation conflict in HMDs."

This means Oculus has been combining a huge variety of research for their Focal Surface Display. Their approach using SLMs has allowed them to get past many common decomposition problems that commonly plague lenses in virtual reality headsets. Beyond adding depth and a natural focus mechanism, Oculus’ new approach should have added benefits for people who wear glasses. Discussing the wide angled engineering approach Oculus said

“By combining leading hardware engineering, scientific and medical imaging, computer vision research, and state-of-the-art algorithms to focus on next-generation VR, this project takes a highly interdisciplinary approach—one that, to the best of our knowledge, has never been tried before. It may even let people who wear corrective lenses comfortably use VR without their glasses."

When will we see this tech in Oculus’ headsets? As can be seen in the video above, the image quality looks pretty poor, I would imagine consumer versions of this tech is fairly far off. That said, at the rapid pace technology moves these days, we could see this new tech sooner rather than later - perhaps a 3rd generation Oculus if not sooner.

Here is the abstract for our upcoming Society for American Archaeology presentation in Vancouver. Written with Jennifer Chmilar, this project uses environmental data to understand human-environmental relationships in a new and highly socio-theoretical manner.


To at least some degree, all cultural groups must respond to and adapt within their surrounding environment, as was the case for the ancient Maya. The Maya area consists of various distinct ecological zones, from volcanic highlands through swampy bajos and across a dry karstic plain punctuated by wetlands, each providing distinct adaptation opportunities. Seasonal fluctuations provide further texture to the flow of each landscape. This paper explores and attempts to characterize the temporality of the ancient Maya wetland landscape of El Eden, Quintana Roo, Mexico. By temporality, we mean the unique temporal rhythms of the landscape and also social life that organized and guided the interconnected tasks vital to ancient Maya life. To do this, we use a historical ecological approach supplemented by ecological data and 3D simulations. Our theoretically driven approach allows us to reconstruct and characterize the unique seasonal rhythms found at El Eden and the corresponding tasks that uniquely developed in response to the seasonally fluctuating wetland landscape. By focusing on seasonality, temporality, and tasks, we demonstrate that life at ancient wetlands were organized in a unique manner contrasting but also complementing other modes of ecological adaptation seen in the Maya area.

While conducting my research, I also found that virtual reality environments could be powerful teaching tools. After creating an interactive application containing a virtual reality reconstruction of the Maya site of Cerro Maya (formerly known as Cerros), I began using it in an introductory anthropology class that I taught at the University of Florida (UF). I required students to explore the virtual reality reconstruction of Cerro Maya while characterizing the social capacities of the ancient architecture in terms of the ritual practices that were important to the rise of social hierarchy at Cerro Maya. In surveys of the class responses, I found that this virtual reality application increased student interest, engagement, comprehension, and retention of core concepts.

By providing an interactive and immersive learning space, students were able to generate their own ideas and theories regarding the use of social space while actively retaining the complex anthropological concepts that they were required to learn.

After gaining recognition from several local press enterprises for using virtual reality with my students in 2014 (click here for more info), I was chosen to develop and teach a new online and in-class multidisciplinary course called Digital Anthropology. The first of their kind at UF, these cross-cutting four-field anthropology courses explore new digital methodologies for anthropology and humanities research while investigating new digital forms of culture.

Click above for video trailer of Digital Anthropology Class

The class incorporates my fast-paced video productions and Microsoft hyper-media format “Sway” into lessons. This course taught students to critically explore and understand digital culture and digital tools for humanities research. Among a variety of assignments, students learned how to model and analyze archaeological and ethnographic sites using video game engine technology and virtual reality hardware. Class activities required the students to learn how to become anthropologists by using ethnographic and social network analysis techniques to explore and analyze virtual online spaces.

Video module 5

Furthermore, students were asked to critically analyze their roles in massively multiplayer online role playing games and social networks using social network analysis tools. I would enjoy teaching a similar class at Illinois Wesleyan University while supporting faculty that desire to incorporate similar interactive digital teaching strategies into their classroom.

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